The Guideline establishes a two-step methodology when determining a fine to be imposed on undertakings. The first step will see the Commission set a “base amount” for each undertaking or association of undertakings. The second step provides the Commission with the necessary discretion to adjust the base amount, either upwards or downwards, having consideration of any aggravating, mitigating or any other factors (Section 5(1)(a)-(b)).
The “base amount” will be set with reference to the undertaking’s turnover in the Common Market from the previous financial year and by applying the following methodology:
The base amount will be a proportion of the turnover and will depend on the nature, degree and gravity of the infringement and multiplied by the number of years of the infringement (Section 5(8)).
The Guideline deems the following as aggravating factors:
Nature and gravity of the infringement (Section 5(10)(a));
Duration of infringement(Section 5(10)(b));
Extend of consumers affected in the Member States and any action taken by the company to mitigate or remedy the damage suffered by consumers (Section 5(10)(c)).
The Guidelines propose the following base proportion of turnover to be applied:
Cartel conduct: a base of 5% of turnover;
Other horizontal conduct: a base of 4% of turnover;
Abuse of dominance: a base of 3% of turnover;
Restraints: a base of 2% of turnover;
Consumer protection violations: a base of 1% of turnover;
Mergers implemented in contravention of the Regulations: a base of 2% of turnover;
Failure to cooperate with the Commission: a base of 0.5% of turnover; and
Other infringements: a base of 0.5% of turnover.
The following aggravating circumstances may result in the increase of the base amount:
Continuation or repeat of the same or a similar infringement: basic amount will be increased by 3% of the amount of the fine for each infringement;
Refusal to cooperate with or obstruction of the Commission’s investigation: basic amount will be increased by 5% of the amount of the fine;
Where an undertaking is a leader in, or instigator of the infringement: basic amount will be increased by 4% of the amount of the fine.
The Commission may reduce the basic amount if the following mitigating factors exist:
Cooperation: decrease in the basic amount by 5% of the fine;
First offender: decrease in the basic amount by 3% of the fine;
Justifications on efficiency and consumer benefit: decrease in the basic amount by 0.5% of the fine;
Termination of the infringement: decrease in the basic amount by 0.5% of the fine;
Negligence: decrease in the basic amount by 0.1% of the fine; and
Extent of involvement in the infringement: decrease in the basic amount by 0.5% of the fine.
A reduction of a fine could be granted, upon request, solely on the basis of objective evidence that the imposition of the fine would irretrievably jeopardize the economic viability of the undertaking concerned and cause its assets to lose all their value (Section 5(21)).
The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) is stepping up to the plate in 2021, and nobody can deny it. The days of ignoring the CCC’s jurisdiction over M&A deals, joint ventures, and even anti-competitive agreements in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa are decidedly over, as the antitrust enforcer has significantly increased its presence and visibility in the legal and business communities over the past 6 months.
In its latest bid to be considered by the antitrust community to rank among the leading African competition-law agencies, the CCC has issued its first-ever failure-to-notify fine on mobile-phone infrastructure providers Helios Towers Limited (“Helios Towers”), Madagascar Towers S.A (“Madagascar Towers”) and Malawi Towers Limited (“Malawi Towers”) for failure to notify the transaction within the prescribed 30-day time period under Article 24(1) of the COMESA Competition Regulations of 2004. Helios Towers is a UK-based telecommunications company, listed on the LSE and a constituent of the FTSE 250 stock index; it operates in the Democratic Republic of Congo within the COMESA region.
As we previously reported in 2017 (here and here), to AAT’s knowledge the only other reported transaction that came close to being fined for a failure to be notified by the merging parties was the paints deal between Akzo Nobel and Sadolin / Crown Paints: “In that transaction, the parties boldly proclaimed that the CCC simply did not have any statutory jurisdiction at all,” says attorney Andreas Stargard, an expert in African competition law. Indeed, four years ago, Akzo’s spokespeople flatly claimed that their deal fell “outside the CCC’s purview,” as “[w]e do not have a merger going on; we are a fully independent plant, so COMESA does not come into the picture at all.”
The COMESA’s CID observed that the Parties should have filed their merger notification on 22nd April 2021 in accordance with Article 24 (1) of the Regulations, but breached it.
Interestingly, as to the comparatively low amount of the fine, the CCC took into account significant mitigating aspects pursuant to Article 26(6), including these five considerations:
The breach was unintentional;
The delay in filing did not yield any “discernible advantage” to the Parties;
The breach did not result in any loss or harm in the market;
The Parties cooperated with the Commission from the time they were engaged leading to the merger being notified on 2nd July 2021 following their initial engagement; and
The Parties have no record of contravention with the Regulations.
Therefore, the CCC merely imposed a 0.05% fine (instead of the statutory maximum under Art. 24(5) of 10% of the parties’ turnover in the preceding calendar year in the common market). AfricanAntitrust.com confirmed this 0.05% figure with a CCC executive, clarifying that this percentage amounted to a fine of U.S. $102,101. Mr. Stargard noted his understanding that the CCC’s positioning of this fine at the extremely low end of the permissible spectrum denotes not only the parties’ significant cooperation and other mitigating factors, outlined above, but also represents a nod by the Commission to the fact that this is the first-ever enforcement action of its kind, and therefore “should not set a precedent in both substance and amount.”
The Parties may appeal the decision (available to AAT readers here) to the full Board of Commissioners in accordance with Article 15(1)(d) of the Regulations as read together with Rule 24 (e) of the COMESA Competition Rules of 2004.
The Commission’s Registrar, Ms. Meti Disasa, stated that “the fine was the first of a kind for breach of the Regulations. The Commission therefore wishes to remind Undertakings in the Common Market to be cautious of the prescribed timeline for notifying mergers in under Article 24 (1) of the Regulations.” Ms. Disasa warned undertakings operating in the Common Market “to comply with all other parts of the Regulations especially with respect to anti-competitive conduct as the Commission shall henceforth not take lightly any breaches of the regional competition law,” according to the CCC’s press release, also noting that “the decision to fine has no impact on the Commission’s assessment of any competitive effects of the merger, which is still ongoing.”
In September 2019, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) formally penalised two merging parties for having implemented a transaction without having obtaining the requisite prior regulatory approval.
The trigger for mandatory notification in this case was a change from joint control to sole control when Patricia Cheng acquired an additional 50% of the shareholding in Moringa School.
The maximum penalty which may be imposed for prior implementation is 10% of the parties’ combined turnover in Kenya. In this case, the CAK imposed a nominal penalty (approximately USD 5000) in light of the parties having voluntarily notified the CAK of their failure to obtain prior approval, having co-operated with the CAK’s investigatory agency and after having subsequently assessed the transaction, the CAK concluded that the merger was unlikely to have any adverse effects on competition and would have positive public interest benefits.
The public interest benefits included the fact that the school would offer coding technology to over 1000 students and employees over 100 staff members.
In light of the mitigating factors, the CAK found that the penalty was balanced taking into account principles of deterrence and proportionality of the infringement.
The case is noteworthy not only because it signals a clear message from the CAK that the prior implementation of mergers will attract penalties (which are likely to increase substantially as firms ought to have greater awareness of the merger control regime in Kenya) but also confirms that a move from sole to joint control of an entity or, as in this case, a move from joint to sole control, requires mandatory notification to the CAK.
The CAK has one of the most effective merger control regimes in Africa and is increasingly becoming a more robust competition agency from an enforcement perspective.
[Michael-James Currie is a competition lawyer practising across the majority of sub-Saharan African jurisdictions]
On 29 June 2018, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) penalised the RTO Group R75 000 for failing to comply with the Tribunal’s conditional merger approval in respect of two companies now within the RTI stable, Warehouseit and Courierit. The Tribunal approved the large merger in August 2015.
In terms of the Tribunal’s merger approval, a moratorium on merger specific retrenchments for a two year period was imposed – now a frequently imposed public interest related condition by the competition agencies in South Africa.
RTI, however, was penalised not for retrenching any employees during this window but for failure to adhere to the monitoring obligations as set out in the Tribunal’s conditional approval certificate.
In this regard, the merging parties were obliged to notify their employees (and Courierit’s subcontractors) of the conditions to the merger approval within five days of the merger approval date. The merging parties were also obliged to provide the Competition Commission with an affidavit confirming that the obligations in terms of the conditions had been complied with.
By way of a consent order, RTI admitted that it failed to comply with its monitoring obligations and agreed to pay an administrative penalty for breaching the Tribunal’s conditional merger approval.
Although there have been a limited number of cases in respect of which an administrative penalty has been imposed for a breach of the merger conditions, this case demonstrates the importance of fully complying with the terms set out by way of a conditional merger approval.
Furthermore, although notifying the employees of the relevant conditions may not have been a particularly onus obligation, merging parties should take particular cognisance of monitoring and reporting obligations when negotiating conditions with the Competition Commission. Merging parties understandably place greater emphasis on the substantive aspects of the conditions and may underestimate the reporting obligations related thereto – particularly if conditions are being negotiated at the eleventh hour (which is not uncommon).
While there are mechanism’s available to merging parties to remedy any patently unworkable aspects contained in merger approval conditions, it is advisable to ensure that the conditions are practical and capable of being adhered to in full prior to being finalised – assuming the merging parties have that luxury.
[Michael-James Currie is a South African based competition lawyer and practices across Sub-Saharan Africa]
On 28 January 2018 the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (“TCCPA”) filed charges against fourteen Ethiopian rebar, corrugated sheet, steel tube and pipe producers and seven rebar importers respectively for allegedly fixing prices in contravention of Article 7(1) of the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Proclamation (“Article 7(1)”), which provides that “(1) An agreement between or concerted practice by, business persons or a decision by association of business persons in a horizontal relationship shall be prohibited if:…(b) it involves, directly or indirectly, fixing a purchase or selling price or any other trading condition, collusive tendering or dividing markets by allocating customers, suppliers territories or specific types of goods or services”.
It is worth mentioning that in most jurisdictions, which have an active competition law enforcement regime in place, ‘cartel conduct’ (i.e. price fixing, market allocation and/or collusion) is a per se prohibition in that the conduct is prohibited outright, without an examination of the actual effects on competition and without permitting a showing of net efficiency or other pro-competitive defensive arguments.
Where cartel conduct is prohibited per se, the relevant competition authorities require no further proof other than the existence of the agreement or concerted practice which underpins the conduct. The conduct is simply presumed to have negative effects on the relevant market.
Article 7(1) of the TCCPA, however, is not a per se prohibition and is based on the ‘rule-of-reason’ standard – effectively permitting respondents to lead evidence demonstrating that the alleged conduct can be justified by pro-competitive, technology or efficiency gain justifications which outweigh any anti-competitive effect.
From a policy perspective, Africa competition lawyer Michael-James Currie notes that the permissibility of the ‘rule of reason defence’ is largely due to the fact that a respondent who is found to have contravened Article 7(1) of the TCCPA is liable to a penalty calculated at fifteen percent of the respondent’s annual turnover. This is a prescribed penalty. For non-cartel conduct, the penalty ranges between 5-10%.
Of the aforementioned fourteen Ethiopian steel producers; three manufacture reinforcement bars, namely East Steel PLC, Habesha Steel Mills PLC and Saint Nail PLC. Six are involved in manufacturing corrugated sheets namely; Ethiopian Steel Profile, Ethiopian Steel PLC, Kombolcha Steel Products Industry PLC (KOSPI), a subsidiary of MIDROC Technology Group and Bazeto PLC and amongst the five manufacturers of steel tubes and pipes are Walia Steel Industry PLC and Mame Steel PLC.
The seven rebar importers accused of price fixing include Dag Trading PLC, Aberus PLC, Berhe Hagos PLC, Marka Trading, Beranea Yeshene and Haileselassie Amabye PLC.
Andreas Stargard, competition counsel with Primerio Ltd. notes that the trigger event for engaging in the alleged price fixing was the fifteen percent devaluation of the birr by the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) in October 2017 which may have influenced retailers and wholesalers to look for ways of recouping losses by raising prices for their goods and services.
It is, however, in fellow Primerio Director John Oxenham’s view, unlikely for a well-executed price-fixing cartel to be created ad hoc without any pre-existing information exchange structure. Therefore, pre-existing trade association, interest groups or other vehicles are commonly used as the enabling platform for competitors to engage in collusive conduct.
The defendants are scheduled to submit their response to the Tribunal on February 20, 2018.
The metal and related products sector is a priority sector in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government is investigating a greater number of business entities involved in the production and importation of metal and metal related products who are also suspected of allegedly fixing prices.
In this regard, Minister Patel has remarked that the old, i.e., current, Act “was focused mainly on the conduct of market participants rather than the structure of markets, and while this was part of industrial policy, there was room for competition legislation as well”.
Patel’s influence in advancing his industrial-policy objectives through the utilisation of the public-interest provisions in merger control are well documented. AAT contributors have written about the increasing trend by the competition authorities in merger control to impose public-interest conditions that go well beyond merger specificity – often justified on the basis of the Act’s preamble which, inter alia, seeks to promote a more inclusive economy. The following extracts from the introduction to the Amendments indicate a similar, if not more expansive, role for public interest considerations in competition law enforcement:
“…the explicit reference to these structural and transformative objectives in the Act clearly indicates that the legislature intended that competition policy should be broadly framed, embracing both traditional competition issues, as well as these explicit transformative public interest goals”.
The draft Bill focuses on creating and enhancing the substantive provisions of the Act aimed at addressing two key structural challenges in the South African economy: concentration and the racially-skewed spread of ownership of firms in the economy.
The role of public interest provisions in merger control have often been criticised, predominantly on the basis that once the agencies move away from competition issues and merger specificity and seek conditions that go beyond that which is strictly necessary to remedy any potential negative effects, one moves away from an objective standard by which to assess mergers. This leads to a negative impact on costs, timing and certainty – essential factors for potential investors considering entering or expanding into a market.
As John Oxenham, director of Pr1merio states, “from a policy perspective it is apparent that consumer-welfare tests have been frustrated by uncertainty”. In this regard, the South African authorities initially adopted a position in terms of which competition law played a primary role, with public-interest considerations taking second place. Largely owing to Minister Patel’s intervention, the agencies have recently taken a more direct approach to public-interest considerations and have effectively elevated the role of public-interest considerations to the same level as pure competition matters – particularly in relation to merger control (although we have seen a similar influence of public-interest considerations in, inter alia, market inquiries and more recently in the publishing of industry Codes of Conduct, e.g., in the automotive aftermarkets industry).
The current amendments, however, risk elevating public-interest provisions above those of competition issues. The broad remedies and powers which the competition agencies may impose absent any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour are indicative of the competition agencies moving into an entirely new ‘world of enforcement’ in what could very likely be a significant ‘over-correction’ on the part of Minister Patel, at the cost of certainty and the likely deleterious impact on investment.
The proposed Amendments, which we unpack below, seem to elevate industrial policies above competition related objectives thereby introducing a significant amount of discretion on behalf of the agencies. Importantly, the Amendments are a clear departure from the general internationally accepted view that that ‘being big isn’t bad’, but competition law is rather about how you conduct yourself in the market place.
The Proposed Amendments
The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:
(i) The provisions of the Competition Act relating to prohibited practices and mergers must be strengthened.
(ii) Special attention must be given to the impact of anti-competitive conduct on small businesses and firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons.
(iii) The provisions relating to market inquiries must be strengthened so that their remedial actions effectively address market features and conduct that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in the relevant markets.
(iv) It is necessary to promote the alignment of competition-related processes and decisions with other public policies, programmes and interests.
(v) The administrative efficacy of the competition regulatory authorities and their processes must be enhanced.
At the outset, it may be worth noting that the Amendments now cater for the imposition of an administrative penalty for all contraventions of the Act (previously, only cartel conduct, resale price maintenance and certain abuse of dominance conduct attracted an administrative penalty for a first-time offence).
Secondly, the Amendments envisage that an administrative penalty may be imposed on any firm which forms part of a single economic entity (in an effort to preclude firms from setting up corporate structures to avoid liability).
We summarise below the key proposed Amendments to the Competition Act.
The evidentiary onus will now be on the respondent to counter the Competition Commission’s (Commission) prima facie case of excessive pricing against it.
The removal of the current requirement that an “excessive price” must be shown to be to the “detriment of consumers” in order to sustain a complaint.
An obligation on the Commission to publish guidelines to determine what constitutes an “excessive price”.
The introduction of a standard which benchmarks against the respondents own “cost benchmarking” as opposed to the utilisation of more objective standards tests.
The benchmarking now includes reference to “average avoidable costs” or “long run average incremental costs” (previously the Act’s only tests were marginal costs and average variable costs).
General Exclusionary Conduct
The current general exclusionary conduct provision, Section 8(c), will be replaced by an open list of commonly accepted forms of exclusionary conduct as identified in Section 8(d).
The definition of exclusionary conduct will include not only “barriers to entry and expansion within a market, but also to participation in a market”.
The additional forms of abusive conduct will be added to Section 8(d):
“prevent unreasonable conditions unrelated to the object of a contract being placed on the seller of goods or services”;
Section 8(1)(d)(vii) is inserted to include the practice of engaging in a margin squeeze as a possible abuse of dominance;
Section (1)(d)(viii) is introduced to protect suppliers to dominant firms from being required, through the abuse of dominance, to sell their goods or services at excessively low prices. This addresses the problem of monopsonies, namely when a customer enjoys significant buyer power over its suppliers”.
The Amendment will look to expand Section 9 of the Act to prohibit price discrimination by a dominant firm against its suppliers.
An onus of proof has been shifted on to the respondent to demonstrate that any price discrimination does not result in a substantial lessening of competition.
Introduction of certain mandatory disclosures relating, in particular, to that of cross-shareholding or directorship between the merging parties and other third parties.
Introduction of provisions which essentially allow the competition authorities to treat a number of smaller transactions (which fell below the merger thresholds), which took place within three years, as a single merger on the date of the latest transaction.
Introduction of additional public-interest grounds which must be taken into account when assessing the effects of a merger. These relate to “ownership, control and the support of small businesses and firms owned or controlled by historically disadvantaged persons”.
Granting the Commission powers to make orders or impose remedies (including forced divestiture recommendations which must be approved by the Tribunal) following the conclusion of a market inquiry (previously the Commission was only empowered to make recommendations to Parliament).
The introduction of a new competition test for market inquiries, namely whether any feature or combination of features in a market that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in that market constitutes an “adverse effect” (a significant departure from the traditional “substantial lessening of competition” test).
Focussed market inquiries are envisaged to replace the “Complex Monopoly” provisions which were promulgated in 2009 but not yet brought into effect.
Empowering the Commission to grant leniency to any firm.
This is a departure from the current leniency policy, under which the Commission is only permitted to grant leniency to the ‘first through the door’.
What does this all mean going forward?
The above proposed amendments are not exhaustive. In addition to above, it is apparent that Minister Patel envisages utilising the competition agencies and Act as a “one-stop-shop” in order to address not only competition issues but facilitate increased transformation within the industry and to promote a number of additional socio-economic objectives (i.e., to bring industrial policies within the remit of the competition agencies).
In a move which would may undermine the independence and impartiality of the competition agencies, the Amendment also intends providing the responsible “Minister with more effective means of participating in competition-related inquiries, investigations and adjudicative processes”.
“The amendments also strengthen the available interventions that will be undertaken to redress the specific challenges posed by concentration and untransformed ownership”.
Competition-law observers interviewed by AAT point out that the principle of separation of powers is a fundamental cornerstone of the South African constitutional democracy and is paramount in ensuring that there is an appropriate ‘checks and balances’ system in place. It is for this reason that the judiciary (which in this context includes the competition agencies) must remain independent, impartial and act without fear or favour (as mandated in terms of the Act).
The increased interventionist role which the executive is envisaged to play, by way of the Amendments, in the context of competition law enforcement raises particular concerns in this regard. Furthermore, the increased role of public-interest considerations effectively confers on the competition agencies the responsibility of determining the relevant ambit, scope and enforcement of socio-economic objectives. These are broad, subjective and may be vastly different depending on whether one is assessing these non-competition objectives in the short or long term.
Any uncertainty regarding the relevant factors which the competition authorities ought to take into account or whose views the authorities will be prepared to afford the most weight too, risks trust being lost in the objectivity and impartiality of the enforcement agencies. This will have a direct negative impact on the Government’s objective in selling South Africa as an investor friendly environment.
In addition, as Primerio attorney and competition counsel Andreas Stargard notes, the “future role played by the SACC’s market inquiries” is arguably open to significant abuse, as “the Competition Commission has broad discretion to impose robust remedies, even absent any evidence of a substantial lessening of competition.”
Mr. Stargard notes that the draft Amendment Bill, in its own words in section 43D (clause 21) “places a duty on the Commission to remedy structural features identified as having an adverse effect on competition in a market, including the use of divestiture orders. It also requires the Commission to record its reasons for the identified remedy. … These amendments empower the Commission to tailor new remedies demanded by the findings of the market inquiry. These remedies can be creative and flexible, constrained only by the requirements that they address the adverse effect on competition established by the market inquiry, and are reasonable and practicable.”
Although the Amendments recognise that concentration in of itself is not in all circumstances to be construed as an a priori negative, the lack of a clear and objective set of criteria together with the lower threshold (i.e., “adverse effect”) which must be met before the competition authorities may impose far-reaching remedies, coupled with the interventionist role which the executive may play (particularly in relation to market inquiries), may have a number of deterrent effects on both competition and investment.
Mr. Stargard notes in this regard that the “approach taken by the new draft legislation may in fact stifle innovation, growth, and an appetite for commercial expansion, thereby counteracting the express goals listed in its preamble: Firms that are currently sitting at a market share of around 30% for instance may not be incentivised to obtain any greater accretive share for fear of being construed as holding a dominant market position, once the 35% threshold is crossed“.
The objectives to facilitate a spread of ownership is not a novel objective of the post-Apartheid government and a number of pieces of legislation and policies have been introduced in order to facilitate the entry of small previously disadvantaged players into the market through agencies generally better equipped to deal with this. These policies, in general, have arguably not led to the government’s envisaged benefits. There may be a number of reasons for this, but the new Amendments do not seek to address the previous failures or identify why various other initiatives and pieces of legislation such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation has not worked (to the extent envisaged by Government). Furthermore, the Tribunal summed up this potential conflict neatly in the following extract in the Distillers case:
“Thus the public interest asserted pulls us in opposing directions. Where there are other appropriate legislative instruments to redress the public interest, we must be cognisant of them in determining what is left for us to do before we can consider whether the residual public interest, that is that part of the public interest not susceptible to or better able to be dealt with under another law, is substantial.”
Perhaps directing the substantial amount of tax payers’ money away from a certain dominant state-owned Airline – which has been plagued with maladministration – and rather use those funds to invest in small businesses will be a better solution to grow the economy and spread ownership to previously disadvantaged groups than potentially prejudicing dominant firms which are in fact efficient.
Furthermore, ordering divestitures requires that there be a suitable third party who could effectively take up the divested business and impose a competitive constraint on the dominant entity. It seems inevitable that based on the proposed Amendments the competition authorities will be placed in the invidious position of considering a divestiture to an entity which may not yet have proven any successful track record. The Amendments do not provide guidance for this and although the competition authorities have the necessary skills and resources to assess whether conduct has an anti-competitive effect on the market, it is less clear whether the authorities have the necessary skills to properly identify a suitable third party acquirer of a divested business.
In addition and importantly, promoting competition within the market achieves public interest objectives. Likewise, anything which undermines competition in the market will have a negative impact on the public interest considerations.
As John Oxenham and Patrick Smithhave argued elsewhere, “competition drives a more efficient allocation of resources, resulting in lower prices and better quality products for customers. Lower prices typically result in an expansion of output. Output expansion, combined with the effect of lower prices in respect of one good or service frees up resources to be spent in other areas of the economy. The result is likely to be higher output and, most importantly for emerging economies, employment”.
While it is true that ordinarily, a decrease in concentration and market power should result in an increase in employment we have not seen a comprehensive assessment of the negative costs associated with pursuing public interest objectives. Any weakening of a pure competition test must imply some costs in terms of lost efficiency, or less competitive outcome, which is justified based on a party’s perspective of a particular public interest factor. That loss in efficiency and less competitive outcome is very likely to have negative consequences for consumers, growth, and employment. Accordingly, the pursuit of “public-interest factors” might have some component of a loss to the public interest itself. We have not seen that loss in efficiency (and resultant harm to the public interest, as comprehensively understood) meaningfully acknowledged in the proposed Amendments.
A further risk to the broad and open ended role which public interest considerations are likely to play in competition law matters should the Amendments be passed is a significant risk of interventionism by third parties (in particular, competitors, Trade Unions and Government) who may look to utilise the Act to simply to harass competitors rather than pursue legitimate pro-competition objectives. The competition authorities will need to be extra mindful of the delays, costs and uncertainty which opportunistic intervention may lead to.
Although there are certain aspects of the Amendments which are welcomed, such as limiting the timeline of market inquiries, from a policy perspective the Amendments appear to go far beyond consumer protection issues in an effort to address certain socio-economic disparities in the South African economy, and may, in fact very likely hinder the development of the economy.
Based on the objectives which underpin the Amendments, it appears as if the Department of Economic Development is focused on dividing the existing ‘economic pie’ rather than on growing it for the benefit of all South Africans.
From a competition law enforcement perspective, however, firms conducting business in South Africa are likely to see a significant shake-up should the Amendments be brought into effect as a number of markets have been identified as highly concentrated (including, Communication Energy, Financial Services, Food and agro-processing, Infrastructure and construction, Intermediate industrial products, Mining, Pharmaceuticals and Transport).
[To contact any of the contributors to this article, or should you require any further information regarding the Amendment Bill, you are welcome to contact the AAT editors email@example.com]
Commission goes after Dutch paint manufacturer in Uganda in supra-national enforcement action threat
By AAT staff
The African expansion saga of Japanese paint manufacturer Kansai continues, albeit not in Southern Africa (after having travailed through a hostile takeover of South African paint company Freeworld Coatings and obtaining a majority stake in Zimbabwean competitor Astra Industries in 2010 and 2013, respectively): the current Kansai-related antitrust story is a COMESA one, which comes to us from East Africa.
As was reported back in 2013 in industry publication CoatingsWorld, Kansai had set its sights on expanding into Eastern Africa as well, focussing on the Sadolin brand (formerly owned by AkzoNobel and since its private equity buy-out produced under a continuing AkzoNobel licence and under the parent label Crown Paints).
This has now changed, says competition attorney Andreas Stargard with Primerio Ltd.: “Recently, the COMESA Competition Commission had become aware of press reports that AkzoNobel had withdrawn its Kansai/Sadolin licence in Uganda (a COMESA member state) and effectively entered into — or planned to enter into — a new agreement with an unnamed ‘local producer’.”
Mr. Stargard, who practices competition law with a focus on African companies and jurisdictions, points out that the COMESA merger-notification regime requires a mandatory filing under certain conditions, such as those affecting 2 or more member states and involving businesses with at least $10m in combined regional revenues.
“Whilst the COMESA review is non-suspensory (meaning the parties must notify, but can go ahead and implement the transaction prior to the termination of the CCC’s antitrust review), the notification itself is mandatory. A failure-to-file can result in significant fines of up to 10% of combined turnover, as well as the regional annulment of the merger within the COMESA countries.
This is what has now happened with Mr. Lipimile’s Sept. 19th letter to AkzoNobel: the CCC chief warned the company that it would risk voiding any contracts if it failed to make a ‘curative’ retroactive filing by yesterday, Monday, 25 September 2017.”
The CCC’s letter to the Dutch paint giant reads in relevant part: “Kindly be informed that the COMESA competition commission has become aware through the media that Akzo Nobel Powder Coatings has entered into sales, manufacturing and distribution agreements with a local paint manufacturer in Uganda. I wish to inform you that, mergers and any other forms of agreements between competitors are required to be notified to the Commission….without such notification, and subsequent approval by the Commission, such transactions are null and void ab initio and no rights or obligations imposed on the participating parties shall be legally enforceable in the Common Market.”
As to the likelihood of any notification having been made — or at least made satisfactorily and completely — Andreas Stargard observes that:
“By any antitrust lawyer’s standards, scrambling to make a filing within less than a week, as seems to be required by George’s letter here, is a tall order — merger notifications usually require significant preparatory work, including data analysis, document collection, and interviews with the business people to advance to a final ‘filing’ stage. To do so in 6 calendar days is extremely difficult.”
He concludes that, “as COMESA is still a relatively young regime in terms of merger filings — with few resources at hand to manage notifications in and of themselves, much less enforcement actions — we expect that the CCC and the parties will somehow arrive at an amicable settlement in this matter.”
Since our June 2017 Edition of the African WRAP, we highlight below the key competition law related topics, cases, regulatory developments and political sentiment across the continent which has taken place across the continent in the past three months. Developments in the following jurisdictions are particularly noteworthy: Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania and South Africa.
[AAT is indebted to the continuous support of its regular contributors and the assistance of Primerio’s directors in sharing their insights and expertise on various African antitrust matters. To contact a Primerio representative, please visit Primerio’s website]
Botswana: Proposed Legislative Amendments
Introduction of Criminal Liability
The amendments to the Competition Act will also introduce criminal liability for officers or directors of a company who causes the firm to engage in cartel conduct. The maximum sanctions include a fine capped at P100 000 (approx. US$10 000) and/or a maximum five year prison sentence.
Fines for Prior Implementation
Once finalised, the legislative amendments will also introduce a maximum administrative penalty of up to 10% of the merging parties’ turnover for implementing a merger in contravention of the Act. This would include ‘gun-jumping’ or non-compliance with any conditions imposed on the merger approval.
Restructuring of the Authorities
Proposed legislative amendments to the Botswana Competition Act will likely result in the Competition Commission’s responsibilities being broadened to include the enforcement of consumer protection laws in addition to antitrust conduct.
Furthermore, there is a significant restructuring of the competition agencies on the cards in an effort to ensure that the Competition Authority – which will become the Competition and Consumer Authority (CCA) – is independently governed from the Competition Commission. Currently, the Competition Commission governs the CA but the CA is also the adjudicative body in cases referred to the Commission by the CA.
The proposed amendments, therefore, seek to introduce a Consumer and Competition Tribunal to fulfil the adjudicative functions while an independent Consumer and Competition Board will take over the governance responsibilities of the ‘to be formed’ CCA.
Information Exchange Guidelines
The Competition Commission has published draft Guidelines on Information Exchanges (Guidelines). The Guidelines provide some indication as to the nature, scope and frequency of information exchanges which the Commission generally views as problematic. The principles set out in the Guidelines are largely based, however, on case precedent and international best practice.
The fact that the Commission has sought to publish formal guidelines for information exchanges affirms the importance of ensuring that competitors who attend industry association meetings or similar forums must be acutely aware of the limitations to information exchanges to ensure that they do not fall foul of the per se cartel conduct prohibitions of the Competition Act.
Market Inquiry into Data Costs
The Competition Commission has formally initiated a market inquiry into the data services sector. This inquiry will run parallel with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s market inquiry into the telecommunications sector more broadly.
Although the terms of reference are relatively broad, the Competition Commission’s inquiry will cover all parties in the value chain in respect of any form of data services (both fixed line and mobile). In particular, the objectives of the inquiry include, inter alia, an assessment of the competition at each of the supply chain levels, with respect to:
The strategic behaviour of by large fixed and mobile incumbents;
Current arrangements for sharing of network infrastructure; and
Access to infrastructure.
There are also a number of additional objectives such as benchmarking the standard and pricing of data services in South Africa against other countries and assessing the adequacy of the regulatory environment in South Africa.
Amnesty re Resale Price Maintenance
The Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has, for a limited period of four months only, granted amnesty to firms who have engaged in Resale Price Maintenance. The amnesty expires on 7 October 2017. Parties who take advantage of the amnesty will receive immunity from the imposition of a 10% administrative penalty for engaging in RPM in contravention of the Mauritius Competition Act.
The amnesty policy followed shortly after the CCM concluded its first successful prosecution in relation to Resale Price Maintenance (RPM), which is precluded in terms of Section 43 of the Mauritius Competition Act 25 of 2007 (Competition Act).
The CCM held that Panagora Marketing Company Ltd (Panagora) engaged in prohibited vertical practices by imposing a minimum resale price on its downstream dealers and consequently fined Panagora Rs 29 932 132.00 (US$ 849,138.51) on a ‘per contravention’ basis. In this regard, the CMM held that Panagora had engaged in three separate instances of RPM and accordingly the total penalty paid by Pangora was Rs 3 656 473.00, Rs 22 198 549.00 and 4 007 110.00 respectively for each contravention.
Please see AAT’s featured article here for further information on Resale Price Maintenance under Mauritian law
Merger and Acquisition Threshold Notification
The Fair Competition Commission has published revised merger thresholds for the determination of mandatorily notifiable thresholds. The amendments, which were brought into effect by the Fair Competition (Threshold for notification of Merger) (Amendment) Order published on 2 June 2017, increases the threshold for notification of a merger in Tanzania from TZS 800 000 000 (approx.. US$ 355 000) to TZS 3 500 000 000 (approx.. US$ 1 560 000) calculated on the combined ‘world-wide’ turnover or asset value of the merging parties.
Concurrent Jurisdiction in the Telecommunications Sector
In June 2017, Kenya’s High Court struck down legislative amendments which regulated the concurrent jurisdiction between the Kenya Communications Authority and the Competition Authority Kenya in respect of anti-competitive conduct in the telecommunications sector.
In terms of the Miscellaneous Amendments Act 2015, the Communications Authority was obliged to consult with the Competition Authority and the relevant government Minister in relation to any alleged anti-competitive conduct within the telecommunications sector, prior to imposing a sanction on a market player for engaging in such anti-competitive conduct.
The High Court, however, ruled that the Communications Authority is independent and that in terms of the powers bestowed on the Communications Authority by way of the Kenya Communications Act, the Communications Authority may independently make determinations against market participants regarding antic-competitive conduct, particularly in relation to complex matters such as alleged abuse of dominance cases.
Establishment of a Competition Tribunal
The Kenyan Competition Tribunal has now been established and the chairperson and three members were sworn in early June. The Tribunal will become the adjudicative body in relation to decisions and/or taken by the Competition Authority of Kenya.
The Operational Rules of the Tribunal have not yet been published but are expected to be gazetted soon.
Introduction of a Corporate Leniency Policy
The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has finalised its Leniency Policy Guidelines, which provide immunity to whistle-blowers from both criminal and administrative liability. The Guidelines specifically extend leniency to the firm’s directors and employees as well as the firm itself.
Only the “first through the door” may qualify for immunity in respect of criminal liability, but second or third responds would be eligible for a 50% and 30% reduction of the administrative penalty respectively, provided that provide the CAK with new material evidence.
It should be noted, however, that receiving immunity from criminal prosecution is subject to obtaining consent from the Director of Public Prosecution as well. As per the procedure set out in the Policy Guidelines, the Director pf Public Prosecutions will only be consulted once a leniency applicant has already disclosed its involvement in the cartel and provided the CAK with sufficient evidence to prosecute the other respondents.
It is not clear what powers the Director of Public Prosecutions would have, particular in relation to the evidence which has been provided by the leniency applicant, should either the CAK or the Director refuse to grant immunity from criminal prosecution.
Medical aid schemes
In a landmark judgment, the Namibian Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision in favour of the Namibian Association of Medical Aid Funds (NAMAF) and Medical Aid Funds (the respondents) finding that the respondents did not fall within the definition of an “undertaking” for the purpose of the Namibian Competition.
Despite the substantial similarities between the Namibian and the South African Competition Act, Namibia’s highest court took a very different interpretative stance to its South African counter-part and held that because the respondents did not “operate for gain or reward” they could not be prosecuted for allegedly having engaged in collusive behaviour in relation to their ‘tariff setting’ activities in terms of which the respondents collectively determined and published recommended bench-marking tariffs for reimbursement to patients in respect of their medical costs.
The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has finalised its Leniency Policy Guidelines (Guidelines) as published in the Government Gazette in May 2017. This follows amendments to the Kenyan Competition Act which now caters for the imposition of a maximum administrative penalty of 10% of a respondent’s turnover if found to have engaged in cartel conduct.
Unlike its South African counter-part, the CAK has sought to provide immunity to whistle-blowers who are “first through the door” from both criminal and administrative liability. A key proviso in respect of obtaining immunity from criminal liability, however, is that the Director of Public Prosecution must concur with the CAK.
The South African Competition Commission’s Corporate Leniency Policy only offers immunity in respect of administrative penalties. Accordingly, directors who caused or knowingly acquiesced in cartel conduct may be criminally prosecuted under South Africa’s leniency policy despite being the whistle-blower.
It should be noted that the CAK will only engage the Director of Public Prosecution when granting conditional immunity. At this stage of the leniency application, the applicant would already have had to disclose its involvement in the cartel conduct and provide the CAK with substantial evidence of the relevant conduct sufficient to establish a contravention of the Competition Act.
Accordingly, the Guidelines do not cater for the possibility that the Director of Public Prosecution may not be willing to forego criminal prosecution in respect of the leniency applicant. It is, therefore, not clear whether the evidence which was disclosed to the CAK as part of a leniency application may be used against the applicant should the Director of Public Prosecution not grant immunity in respect of criminal liability.
In this regard, it would have been useful if the Guidelines catered for this risk. For instance, by expressly affirming that the Director of Public Prosecution would abide by the CAK’s recommendations unless there are compelling reasons not to. Absent this assurance, potential leniency applicants may be reluctant to approach the CAK for leniency until there is, at the very least, a clear indication of the Director of Public Prosecutions involvement in this process.
A welcome feature of the CAK’s Guidelines, however, is that fact that the Guidelines specifically extend leniency to a firm as well as to the firm’s directors and employees. The inherent conflict which may arise between the interests of the company versus the interests of the relevant directors, therefore, has been removed.
A further significant aspect of the Guidelines is that the Guidelines do not limit the granting of leniency (in respect of administrative penalties) to the respondent who is ‘first through the door’ only. A second or third respondent would also be eligible for a reduction of the administrative penalty of 50% and 30% respectively, provided the CAK is provided with material “new evidence”. Only a respondent who is ‘first through the door’, however, will qualify for immunity in respect of criminal liability – provided the respondent is not the “instigator” of the cartel.
The Guidelines also provide a framework which sets out the process which must be followed in applying for leniency including the steps which must be taken in respect of ‘marker’ applications.
As to who may apply for leniency, it is noteworthy that while a parent company is entitled to apply for leniency on behalf of its subsidiary, the reverse is not true on the basis that a subsidiary does not control the parent company. Accordingly, in fully fledged joint ventures for example, only one of the parties to the JV may apply for leniency (to the extent that the JV contravenes the Competition Act) and, therefore, the parent company should be the entity applying for leniency and not the legal entity which is in fact the party to the JV.
[Michael-James Currie is a competition law practitioner practicing in South Africa as well as the broader African region]
The Amendment Bill was assented to by the President in December 2016 and the amendments are, therefore, effective.
Although most of the amendments which are particularly noteworthy were addressed in the above article, a particularly noteworthy amendment, and very much the focus of this article, is the newly introduced prohibition of an abuse of “buyer power”. In this regard, Section 24 of the Act, which deals with abuse of dominance generally, has been amended to also cater for an abuse of “buyer power.”
Section 24 of the Act was, even prior to the introduction of “buyer power” a particularly challenging provision to interpret and it has not been clear how the provisions relating to an abuse of dominance would ultimately be assessed.
By way of background, the definition of “dominance” in the Act, effectively states that a firm will be considered dominant if that firm has greater than 50% market share
The Act goes on to list, without being exhaustive, a number of practices which would typically constitute an abuse of dominance including:
imposing unfair purchasing or selling prices;
limiting or restricting output, market access or technological advancements;
tying and/or bundling as part of contractual terms; or
abusing intellectual property rights.
The Act does not provide further guidance as to what would precisely constitute an “abuse” of dominance and under what circumstances a purchasing or selling price would be deemed to be “unfair”.
The abuse of dominance provisions do not necessarily, therefore, appear to be directly linked to the promotion or maintenance of competition in the market. Once it is shown that a firm has more than 50% market share, firms are in treacherous terrain as the threshold for engaging in “abuse” of dominance is relatively low when compared to many other comparable jurisdictions which generally cater for a rule of reason defence or at least provide greater guidance as to what conduct would constitute a per se violation.
By way of an example, in terms of the South Africa Competition Act, a dominant firm is per se prohibited from charging an “excessive price”. The South African Competition Act does, however, define an “excessive price” as one which “bears no reasonable relation to the economic value thereof”. Despite this definition, further guidance has been sought but the competition authorities as to what, in turn, constitutes a “reasonable” and “economic value.”
Over and above certain identified acts of abuse of dominance, the South African Competition Act also includes for a “catch-all” abuse of dominance provision. However, the conduct will only amount to an “abuse” if there is an anti-competitive effect which cannot be justified by a rule of reason analysis.
The comparison with the South African Competition Act is useful as the Kenyan Competition Act does not provide for a similar assessment as does its South African counter-part. For instance, it is not clear how predatory pricing or excessive pricing would be evaluated under the Kenyan Act. Presumably this would fall under the preclusion of charging an “unfair” selling price, which leads one back to the question as to what constitutes an “unfair” price.
In addition to the above, the recent addition of “buyer power” to the abuse of dominance provisions has added to the complexity and risk to firms on the procurement side.
“Buyer power” is defined as the “the influence exerted by an undertaking in the position or group of undertakings in the position of a purchaser of a product or service to obtain from a supplier more favourable terms, or to impose long term opportunity costs including harm or withheld benefit which, if carried out, would be significantly disproportionate to any resulting long term cost to the undertaking or group of undertakings.”
Furthermore, in considering whether a firm has “buyer power” the following factors will be considered:
the nature of the contractual terms;
the payment requested for access infrastructure; and
the price paid to suppliers.
Accordingly, the crux of the rather cumbersome definition is that an undertaking will only be considered to have “buying power” if that undertaking(s) has simultaneously actually abused its’ buying power. In other words, there is no distinction between what constitutes “buying power” and what constitutes an “abuse” of buying power. The Act’s definition of “buying power” is, therefore, all encompassing.
Although the above definition is somewhat unclear, it should be noted that the Competition Authority of Kenya, together with Parliament and other stakeholders intend developing rules which would hopefully clarify how these provisions will ultimately be evaluated.
A further important point to note is that it is not a requirement that a firm be ‘dominant’ in order to be considered to have “buying power”. Whether it was the intention of the legislator to require a firm to first be ‘dominant’ before it could be prosecuted for “abuse of buyer power” is not entirely clear. The definition of “buying power” is remarkably silent on this issue.
The fact that the preclusion of an abuse of buyer power necessitates that a firm be dominant could be inferred by the fact that provision is inserted under Section 24 (the abuse of dominance provisions).
However, the definition of “buyer power” caters for a situation where a group of undertakings, such as when a buying group, is formed, exert buyer power, the group commits an offence. Accordingly, it may have been that the legislator was contemplating a situation in which a group of undertakings, such as a buying group collectively meets the ‘dominance’ threshold (i.e. a greater than 50% market share).
Alternatively, it could have been the intention of the legislator that the abuse of buyer power has no direct link to dominance as such and that once a firm or group of firms satisfy the definition of “buyer power”, irrespective of their market shares, the provision is triggered.
In a number of developing countries such as Turkey, South Africa and Botswana have conducted market inquiries into the grocery retail sector. Although the focus of these inquiries are relatively broad, a common focus of all the market inquiries in this sector relates to the role that the large retailers play in the market. In particular, suppliers and competition agencies are often concerned with the buying power which large retailers could exert on suppliers and that the trading terms are unfair, particularly for smaller retailers who are not always in a position to pay for shelf space, access fees or offer the discounts demanded by the retailers.
In many instances, however, the large retailers are not ‘dominant’ and a complainant would need to demonstrate that the buying power exerted by the large retailer is in fact anti-competitive.
The Kenyan Competition Authority may have thought to pre-empt this challenge and therefore included the “abuse of dominance” provisions without requiring a firm to actually be dominant for the provision to be triggered. Furthermore, the definition of “buying power” and the absence of any requirement that the conduct must in fact be anti-competitive may have been an attempt by the legislator to lower the threshold in an effort to assist a complainant in cases where a purchaser, such as a large retailer, exerts “buyer power”, but is not “dominant” in the market.
The absence of any objective qualification to assess when a firm has exerted “buyer power” in an “unfair” manner may open the litigation floodgates. A further reason why it is important that the authorities publish rules to assist with the interpretation and implementation of the “abuse of buyer” power provisions.
In terms of enforcement, the Act was previously silent on the role of the Authority upon the conclusion of an abuse of dominance investigation and the only option lay on criminal prosecution of the offending undertaking. The recent amendments to the Act now allows the Authority to impose fines of up to 10% of the annual turnover of the offending undertaking(s).